A PERSON must one day drop out of life, but not out of school. So holds conventional wisdom. The first half of the aphorism is a cliché, but the latter half about staying in school continues to undergird much of the global development narrative. Some folks are not persuaded, though.
They would rattle off countless accounts of women and men who achieved much for themselves and humankind, but who received little to nothing in formal education.
They would cite examples of these ‘rich’ offspring of abbreviated education — Richard Branson, Li Ka-shing and Lim Goh Tong, Dickens and Wells. The first three come from the pantheon of wealth immeasurable, the other two are literary gods.
Why, some may even say, as Wilde did more than 120 years ago, that the “whole theory of modern education is radically unsound”.
The English genius, through Lady Bracknell, was thinking of the ‘threat’ of unlocking the power of the downtrodden. In the 21st century, it’s about the threat posed by education’s inability to unlock the potential of young minds for the much-hyped (and feared) Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Wilde may have been right to suggest that “modern education” is lacking. And some parents may rightly have doubts about the efficacy of the current system. Thankfully, they stick with it, doing what they can (and must) to ensure their children learn and grow.
Thankfully, too, reality speaks loud and clear to parents; not all school dropouts are able to make it in the world. Not in the sense of accumulating wealth beyond measure, but in the building of a dignified and worthwhile life.
Education boosts their chances. ‘No education’ boosts their obstacles.
But this realisation is not enough. If we think the nation can live with its current dropout rates, think again. Do we want to wait until we pass the tipping point? The NST most assuredly says ‘No’. The cost, literally and figuratively, is too high.
The preeminent Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) attests to this. In ‘The school-to-work transition of young Malaysians’ report which was released in December, KRI said that “these educationally marginalised young Malaysian men represent a lost source of human capital and a potential source of social and political instability”.
The report details startling numbers that cut across all racial lines.
Dropouts prefigure national troubles. If we are not ready to vigorously fight this battle, then be ready to add ‘young women’ into the dismal equation one day. And be ready for a tangled mess not so unlike Marie Antoinette’s France.
So act now, we must. The Education Ministry has already felt the early tremors, and is thus proposing to make it mandatory for students to complete their education until Form 5.
Malaysia will not be the first off the blocks in this regard. Many other nations, including our neighbours, have already lifted the bar.
The KRI report is not all gloom. It provides solutions too. But here are other things for the authorities to consider; drive down the cost of education, and help the B40 and M40 groups.
The guiding principle must always be this — make education egalitarian. That, too, should be conventional wisdom by now.